At some point very early in his literary career — maybe it was when he first saw “Apocalypse Now” at the age of 10 — Viet Thanh Nguyen experienced a revelation. From the enormous sluice of material produced about the ruinous Vietnam War, almost none of it came from the perspective of that war’s central players, the Vietnamese people.
Fast forward to 2016 and Nguyen has done his part in filling that vacuum in the biggest way possible. His 2015 tragicomic spy novel “The Sympathizer” recently won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and, because of that, it’s poised to become the must-read book of the summer.
“No one was more surprised than I was,” said Nguyen of the Pulitzer. “It means I now can’t get my e-mail inbox below 700 emails, no matter what I do.”
The newly minted Pulitzer winner will appear Saturday at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in Soquel to discuss “The Sympathizer” and his new non-fiction title “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.” Also appearing will be novelist Matt Gallagher.
“The Sympathizer,” Nguyen’s first novel, is fashioned in the form of a “Lolita”-style first-person confession, set in the years just after the Vietnam War. The narrator is a South Vietnamese military aid who is working as a spy for the communist North Vietnamese. The unnamed spy is the product of an absent French father and a Vietnamese mother, was educated in America, but returned to his home country to fight for the cause alongside the Marxist insurgency. His life is, in fact, defined by the foot-in-two-cultures ambivalence he experiences between East and West, communism and capitalism, the past and the future.
Ambivalence is not only a dominant theme of the novel, Nguyen says it has been a major motif in his own life. Born in Vietnam, he fled with his family to the U.S. after the 1975 fall of Saigon, eventually settling in San Jose where his parents operated a downtown market. Nguyen admits that his youth in San Jose was largely an unhappy time, triggering a kind of ambivalence that not only informs his writing today, but is at odds with most Americans’ image of themselves.
“People always say, ‘Hey, that’s the American Dream, the immigrant’s story, you made it!,” said Nguyen who is a professor of American and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California. “That’s a very powerful narrative to many Americans. It speaks to our deepest belief about what America is. But when people bring that up, I remind them that I’m not an immigrant, I’m a refugee and that’s a critical difference. Many refugees are here because of wars the U.S. fought overseas.”
While readers are suddenly flocking to “The Sympathizer,” Nguyen is also hoping to bring attention to “Nothing Ever Dies,” which he says works as a kind of non-fiction companion to the Pulitizer Prize-winning novel. What runs through both books is the conviction that the dominant story of the Vietnam War (called the “American War” in Vietnam) is much too America-centric, and the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians killed in the war are little more than extras.
“They are two ways of attacking this problem of how I think the Vietnam War has been misremembered or poorly remembered. All countries, and the U.S. is certainly no exception, have structurally built into them this desire to forget things that are irreconcilable on how they perceive themselves.”
As for “The Sympathizer,” the Pulitzer Prize has had at least positive outcome for Nguyen. “I got a phone call from my dad about two days after the Pulitzer announcement,” he said. “He was very excited because some people in Vietnam had heard about the Pulitzer and it was a big deal among the Vietnamese people. His voice was shaky with happiness, and this is not an emotional or emotive man. It was the happiest I’ve ever heard him. I made my dad happy and all it took was winning the Pulitzer.”